The field of Material Sciences is fundamental to our tech dominated daily life even though Metallurgy, as a field, is not as popular and mainstream as Computer Science and Electronics. However, that doesn’t deter those who take this as an opportunity to explore the area further.

Shalini Dolai (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Research Engineer & Electrochemist at Saint-Gobain Research India, works on corrosion related challenges of “building” hardware in hot and humid countries like India in order to develop new test methods for qualifying “building” materials. 

Shalini talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her PhD on development of high performance coatings for metals and the role of electrochemistry in understanding corrosion behaviour for the development of futuristic materials.

For students, you have 2 choices – 1) Follow others, which is easy or 2) inspire others to follow you, which is tough. If your favourite subject is a niche area, instead of getting scared to walk on a road that is less travelled, feel more motivated to push the boundaries !

Shalini, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you come from?

Though I was born and brought up in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh, my roots belong to a small village called Sompeta in Srikakulam district. My mother tongue is Oriya but my first language subject was telugu in my school. My dad retired from Hindustan Shipyard limited four years ago. Mother is a homemaker and studied only upto 7th standard. Despite having interest in studies, she never got an opportunity. She learned English all by herself and she is the main reason for my dedication towards education. I have two elder sisters and my eldest Sister Santhoshi was the first Women Engineer from our village. Her specialization was computer science. Since childhood, I was keen towards Science and Maths and always scored 100 percent marks. I was not at all good in language subjects due to which I never topped in my school.  I dreamed about becoming a scientist after growing up and found my way towards this path and became an electrochemist. I have the same amount of passion for painting and spend most of my time creating pieces of artworks.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued B.E. (Metallurgy) from Andhra university. This was a crucial point in my life. Honestly, my mind was also conditioned at this point by parents and teachers to opt for subjects like computer science or electronics engineering which are more popular. I knew that I didn’t have any interest in those subjects, but I would have taken them if I had secured a good rank in EAMCET. For my rank, though I got metallurgy, I was not at all disappointed or scared at that point to choose this subject. I took this as an opportunity rather than looking at it as an inferior branch. Once I took this Engineering course, I realized that this field has a huge opportunity and is highly undervalued in India. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

One of the subjects that drew my attention during that time was corrosion and electrochemistry. I did an internship on this subject in BARC where electrochemistry is very important to understand the corrosion behaviour of critical materials used in the nuclear power industry. I analysed the effect of chloride and fluoride impurities on corrosion of SS 304L steel using electrochemical techniques. 

I continued my journey in this field and pursued (PhD+ Masters) from IIT Bombay. 

Some of the mentors who helped me on this path were my senior from our college who was working in BARC, my internship mentor at BARC and Prof Raja and Khanna from IIT Bombay.

My Internship at BARC opened my eyes to the huge scope for research and opportunities in this field. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Although my instincts wanted me to choose a career in research, my conditioned mind wanted to settle in any job after my B.Tech. I was not happy or excited about the idea of settling down in some random job. I was in B.Tech 3rd year and was feeling lost and clueless. At that time, I saw an advertisement about an Internship opportunity organized by IAS( Indian academy of sciences). I applied for it and got an opportunity to work for a small study at BARC. At that time, I strongly decided that I have to pursue a career in this field and IIT Bombay was my target. I wrote this in my diary in 2012 and in 2013, I secured a good Gate score and got an M.Tech seat in the Material science and Metallurgical engineering department, IIT Bombay. In my M.Tech, more than attending classes, I enjoyed reading research papers and working in a Lab, thanks to my Professor Dr. Khanna who let me be involved in multiple projects which he was handling. That’s when I wanted to convert my Masters degree to a PhD. Though a PhD looks like a long and scary journey, those who love working in a lab will love this journey. The kind of experience and training that you get in a PhD makes you stand out from the rest of the people. PhD makes you a very strong personality w.r.t. technical skills as well as your persona. 

In PhD, my research topic was ” Development of high performance coatings using nano particles for Metals”.  Here the primary performance was related to corrosion resistance along with other properties such as resistance to abrasion, UV degradation etc. Our approach was to use Nano additives such as industrial waste flyash, Iron oxide, Zinc and Titanium oxide of various sizes and shapes to improve the quality of the coating.  The key technique that was used to evaluate these coatings was Electrochemical technique (Polarization technique)

Along with my PhD, I also completed industrial projects. 

1. Antifungal coating development for Titan leather watches. 

2. Microbial corrosion studies on Indian railway tracks due to human discharges -British steel

3. Anti ice coatings for Boeing Aeroplanes

How did you get your first break?

As I explained earlier, my first break was the IAS internship opportunity and second was when I secured an MTech seat at IIT Bombay. 

I got this Job through campus placements at IIT Bombay. I don’t like jobs which have standard operating procedures (SOP) in industries. I always wanted to work in research laboratories be it in the industry or academics where the job will be dynamic with  a scope of expanding one’s knowledge daily.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Coming out of the bubble i.e. the conditioned mind to choose only a popular engineering stream. 
  • Challenge 2: lack of coaching centers for GATE exam in Vizag
  • Challenge 3: No access to information because the internet was not accessible in those days. 

After going to IIT Bombay, I got good guidance from seniors and professors. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I am a Senior research Engineer at Saint Gobain Research India. We work on challenges related to corrosion of “building” hardware in hot and humid countries like India and offer corrosion protection solutions by developing new test methods for qualifying “”building materials. 

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

The job needs knowledge on electrochemistry, corrosion mechanisms and different techniques to study corrosion.

What is a typical day like?

I cook lunch in the morning and then go to the office. The first thing that I do is to check my emails and schedule. I spend ten minutes prioritizing my tasks and decide how much time I need to spend on each task. While focusing on long term projects, we also need to solve customer problems on a daily basis.  In the evening, I spend at least one hour reading research articles and that’s how my office work ends. 

What is it you love about this job?

Freedom. Our office has an open and engaging culture. There is no hierarchy to interact with people. We can approach the CEOs of the Saint Gobain Businesses or Global directors without anybody’s permission. So, we can draft our own problem statements by interacting with people and propose solutions which will be reviewed by managers and relevant people.

How does your work benefit society?

ElectroChemistry and Corrosion are like siblings who have a lot in common. On the one hand, we have only a few electrochemists in India, though it is a very important subject for futuristic materials used in Fuel Cells ( Alternative efficient and eco friendly technology for batteries), targeted drug delivery mechanism for diseases like cancer, corrosion studies etc. And on the other hand, there are only a handful of corrosion engineers in India. India loses 4-5 % of GDP every year due to corrosion and due to a lot of accidents such as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy that happen from time to time. Even today, we don’t have good protocols in place to reduce such accidents. More brilliant minds in this field can fix a lot of these issues. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think one of my most memorable works was setting up an electrochemical lab at Saint Gobain where corrosion is the main focus. My colleague Anand and I started this lab from scratch. We did a small proof of concept in the beginning to gather funds, popularize it across Saint Gobain to communicate its importance and finally set up a lab. From now on, we will be consistently adding new facilities to solve more Building materials related problems. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If your favourite subject is a niche area, instead of getting scared to walk on a road that is less travelled, feel more motivated to explore more. Also, keep yourself updated about new technologies and markets. That will keep your eyes open to grab opportunities. 

Future Plans?

My future plan is to develop competency in my field as much as I can to solve more industrial problems. Today, there is a lack of awareness and it needs to be eliminated.